Selling PCs in the 1970s
By Shahed Ahmmed
Summary: In current days, selling a computer is easy. But back in 1970s, when general public were largely unfamiliar to the concept of personal computers (and so the benefits it can bring to their life), selling those new machines was a challenging tasks for the manufacturers. On this short article, we are going to review some of the successful strategies that helped those startups-manufacturers to sell their PCs and penetrate the very new market.
Back in 1970s, when general public were largely unfamiliar to the concept of personal computers (and the benefits it can bring to their life), selling those electronic machines was a challenging tasks for the manufacturers. Other factors like technical expertise required in operating those machines and embryonic industry added more complexities to this problem. From an article on HistoryLearningSite.co.uk , it is found that in those days, PCs were used mainly by hobbyists and technicians, and not usually by businessmen or general public. To overcome this niche-segment problem, i.e., to increase the sales of those early personal computers to larger segments, manufactures relied on various marketing techniques that contributed those new products to penetrate in the market. On this article, we are going to review some of the extremely successful business strategies that increased the sales of new PCs and shaped the industry in those early years.
Aggressive Marketing Campaign and Free Samples
Aggressive campaign helped computer manufacturers to penetrate the very new market. Those marketing strategies included free samples of PCs to offices, factories, universities, and other places where prospective users had a chance to test it, so that a prospective user can be turned into a prospective customer. Several top producers (for instance, Apple) distributed free samples even in schools. For example, as mentioned on an article on business.highbeam.com , “From the beginning, Apple's marketing efforts were aimed at the school, college, and home markets.” Those free samples were the first PCs that general people touched, operated, and finally became amazed at their performance. By looking back into the timeline, we can easily say that, those free samples shaped the bright future of PC industry.
Monthly and Weekly Magazines
As mentioned earlier, very few people were aware of computer in those years, mainly due to lack of information. Computer-related magazines contributed remarkably in reducing that information gap. As a supplementary marketing tool, those magazines were often supplied for free on a continuous and regular (weekly or monthly) basis, along with the one-time shipment of free PC itself. Most of those magazines were written in non-technical language, containing interesting tips for average people – such as, how a college student can use a computer for performing his homework, and like. The first magazine of this kind, “Computers and People”, was quite non-technical and aimed at general people, as reported by Iaciofano . In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the number of exclusively computer-related magazines was mushroomed to 450. Regular publications of those magazines kept people busy in thinking what else and else can be done by their computer. As a result, sales of PCs were growing, clearly proving that those magazines worked as an excellent long term sales force.
Family-Oriented Marketing Campaigns
Everyday tasks, like making a spreadsheet for home budget or solving math for kid’s homework, also got their place on the advertisements of PCs. As mentioned by Lasar , “Mom, dad, and the kids were all over ads for the IBM PC…” Those advertisements sent the message that, a PC is not just a computing machine, but can also contribute to your entire family in many ways you never thought before.
Games and Entertainment
PC manufactures in those early days emphasized on games and similar entertaining software, making a new PCs a source of entertainment. By this way, they managed to catch the attention of those general public who did not a need a solution to complex mathematical problems (like that of specialists and businessmen) but can use the PC as an over-capable video-game and entertainment device. Those people, who liked existing video games, became attracted to PCs just because it could deliver more sophisticated, entertaining games than that of a video game machines, as reported on vgsales.wikia.com . By giving emphasize on games and entertainment, PC manufactures managed to capture some of the home entertainment segment, specially the gaming segment.
Utilizing the Success of Mainframes as a Marketing Campaign
Although the concept of personal computer was new, according to Kopplin , the concept of mainframe was not. In fact, many people were already familiar to mainframe computers and they indeed heard about what those expensive machines can do in large organizations, such as solving complex mathematical problems. Manufacturers of PCs capitalized the success-stories of mainframe computers and claimed that new personal computers can do many of the tasks that those expensive mainframes can do. This analogy to mainframe attracted those specialists and businessmen who wanted the facilities of mainframe computer but could not afford it because of high cost. They began thinking that the new personal computers may be a low-cost alternative to mainframes. By this way, manufacturer managed to capture the segment of specialists and businessmen.
Graphical User Interface
During the early years, users have to memorize dozen of commands, and had to type those commands to operate the computer. Here is an example from ComputerHope.com : To delete a file named “MyFile”, the user had to type exactly this:
_ ERASE MyFile _
For each action, there was different set of command words. According to another article on ComputerHope.com , this text based interface confined the use of PCs into limited number of users – mainly within the power-user (extremely technically-fluent users). Fortunately, this situation was changed when Graphical User Interface (GUI) was developed, which eliminated the necessity of memorizing and typing commands to run a computer. Instead, users could use icons, mouse pointers, and menus (just like the PC of current days) to operate the PC. Unlike the marketing strategies mentioned so far, this one was a technical innovation rather than marketing. Needless to say, the introduction of GUI made it possible to use a PC not only by novice users, but also by school children. As Akass  mentioned, this invention hugely widened the customer segment, hence increased the sell of PC tremendously.
The Movie - “2001: A Space Odyssey”
All of the marketing campaigns (and other techniques) mentioned above got hugely leveraged from the epic science fiction movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which was released nearly during the same time – in 1968. Many writers, such as Iaciofano , placed this movie in the notable events of computer history. In this epic movie, a computer named HAL was one of the important characters. In that era, very few people among general public really knew what a computer really was, but this movie dramatically changed that situation. Almost everyone, both young and adults during that time, watched this movie, and ended up gaining a curiosity towards computers. Although some people say that this movie showed the computer in a negative light, it also sent the message that computer is a very powerful intelligent machine. By leveraging existing (and upcoming) marketing campaigns, may be unintentionally, this movie played a critical role in increasing the sale of PCs in those early years.
Now the final question is, did those marketing strategy really work ? Yes. Although technological innovations led to the creation of computers, it was mainly the marketing innovation that led the selling of those new superior machines. As a result of those innovative marketing strategies, sales of PC increased more than the expectation of the manufacturers, which contributed to further improvement of the products. As stated on Encyclopædia Britannica , “machine was successful enough to persuade the company to introduce a more powerful computer two years later.”
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 Lasar, Matthew (2012). "Make mainframes, not war: how Mad Men sold computers in the 1960s and 1970s."Ars Technica. http://arstechnica.com/business/2012/05/make-mainframes-not-war-how-mad-men-sold-computers-in-the-1960s-and-1970s/
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